The Boston to Pensacola Fender-bender

... we become witness to a hundred crashed cars

by Don Norris

Snow storm in midnight blue decorates the countryside around Columbia, South Carolina -- and creates the backdrop for the crash of hundreds of cars on I-20. Rush hour drivers raced against odds -- and provided months of work for local repair shops.

Is this story of great news value? Ummm, it does have some insights into the vagaries of travel, of human nature, of man behind the wheel. And it does have a participant's view of one of the more prolonged automobile crashes I've ever seen.

It began in Boston and didn't stop until we reached the Florida border.

The story starts on Friday, January 21, the day we were scheduled to load the car for the first leg of our 1600 mile journey to Pensacola, Florida, for we had rented a modest condo on Perdido Key for the month of February. The problems began that morning as we woke up to snow, and spent the first day shoveling out our driveway in Melrose.

So one day off schedule wasn't bad, but the forecasters had predicted another storm for the next day, Sunday. So when we saw the sun on an icy cold Saturday morn, we literally threw our suitcases and boxes of support goods into the back of the wagon, locked up the house, and took off. The temperature was minus six.

For mid-winter we did well, with only one near miss on the Garden State Parkway in New York. I was studying a complex display of road signs and the car drifted into another lane, almost clipping another traveler. The resulting evasive action put our over-weighted Honda into a radical fish-tailing skid, and I almost lost it -- four hours into the trip.

We made it well down the Garden State (one of the worst roads to travel at rush hour, in my estimation), down the Jersey Turnpike, through that one-dollar-14-mile-stretch of Delaware, thru Maryland and Baltimore, all in fine shape. The major test is always doing the beltway around Washington, which has been overburdened with traffic since its inception. It becomes a test of one's defensive driving skills. Do you drive in the slow lane and become a traffic hazard, or do you drive with speedsters in any of the other three lanes and become a hazard to yourself? Take your choice, its not a pleasant experience. We saw several smashed and abandoned cars along the way.

Nevertheless we made it to Fredericksburg, 550 miles into our trip, by dinnertime, selected a nice motel that offers a 30 percent discount to seniors (the Choice chain), fixed a cocktail, turned on the weather channel, and tried to unwind. Problems ahead, the TV guy said, snow and sleet and ice coming to Richmond in the morning, with dire travelers' warnings posted.

Having experienced this stretch of I-95 in the past when it was hit with a snow storm, we decided the schedule could afford another day's layover. Our experiences of a similar winter day three years ago were vivid enough to remember the horrendous crashes that day, counting something like fifteen crashes including a jack-knifed double trailer.

So we stayed in Fredericksburg, visited old friends and places, and read. But the storm failed to materialize. It just didn't happen. Ah, what's an extra Sunday in bed!

The following morning, Monday, we saw a break in the weather pattern, and although snow and ice were still predicted (re-predicted???) for that day, we figured we could beat it. We were headed south, right? If we got caught, we could always pull off the highway at the next exit and check into the nearest motel -- for motel competition on I-95 is now fierce, much to the delight of motorists. Prices have gone down and selection has gone up.

We caught a late lunch in Florence, South Carolina, having planned to turn off I-95 here, pick up I-20 west through Columbia, to Augusta, Georgia, that day. All went well until we were twenty miles short of Columbia, when it started raining. Which turned immediately to sleet, coating the highway with a two inch coating of corn ice. And then it turned to heavy, thick, wet snow. All this right as rush hour began in Columbia.

In New England this ice and snow storm would be just another passing event, but in South Carolina, it spelled the crashing and burning of hundreds of cars. After coming through the storm unscathed, our car rests peacefully and almost alone in the parking lot of our motel.

We slowed from 70 to 40, and watched as the unwary South Carolina drivers began spinning and twirling around us. On the eastbound side, a big black Mercury sports model began a spinning dance in the fast lane, probably at 60 miles an hour. Other drivers hit the brakes and turned sharply to avoid the imminent collision -- all to little avail. They bounced off each other, clanged bumper to bumper, and drove off the road. The Merc ended up backwards on the median strip, with another car crashed into its front end.

Ach, let's get off this highway, we said. But there was no exit, and the mayhem picked up. We came upon a three-car accident on our side, all three cars in the ditch, a lone trooper offering aid to the injured. A hundred yards further on was a sedan in the ditch, up-side-down, the driver just then crawling out the window to climb back up the embankment.

At that point, all traffic on our westbound side came to a halt. It was totally dark now, and we could watch as the commuters continued to speed home, creating crash after crash. It became a comedy and we figured there was one accident for every half-mile of highway. For some reason, these South Carolinians refused to slow down for the icy  conditions.

It took us an hour and a half to go that ten miles into the heart of Columbia -- which was probably a godsend for it made travel much safer at our stop-and-go pace.

To show how unprepared these Southerners are for ice and snow, we saw two plows vying for space on the eastbound side of I-20 -- except the plows were mounted on pickup trucks.

When we finally arrived at the source of our jam, there, spread across four lanes was the wreckage of what once were three cars, although the smashed and bent metal resembled anything but automobiles now. There was no officer, no DPW guys, no emergency people directing traffic there. Our four lanes traffic of were pushed of necessity into one lane, which was in turn pushed out into the slush of the median strip to get past the wreckage. It looked like a bomb had exploded in the middle of the highway.

By this time the snow and ice was about five very heavy inches thick. Fortunately there was an exit as well as a choice of hotels -- again a Comfort Inn for the 30 percent discount. When we told the lady behind the counter of our discount, she told us that she could beat even that price -- such is the benefit of competition. We had a lovely room overlooking a snow-covered semi- tropical garden in Columbia, SC.

Our goal the next morning -- the ice and snow were virtually a thing of the past as the temperature rose to 50 -- was Atlanta where we were scheduled to spend several hours searching for dead relatives at the Georgia Archives. But in the 80 miles to the Georgia border, we kept seeing more cars in the ditches, and evidence where many had already been pulled out. And in spite of the brilliant sun, the radio warned of yet another ice and snow storm aimed at Atlanta that afternoon, so we deviated due south, across rural Georgia. It was a wise choice, for the ice knocked out all power in the city and put a halt to all traffic. We dodged that bullet, and that part of Georgia is beautiful.

The next stop was Warner Robins in central Georgia, where we were to meet with other cousins and do more research at an old Methodist orphanage, where two grandfathers, both named William Napoleon Norris, had lived in 1870-80. We found good evidence, but added nothing to what we already had.

As we drove into Warner Robins, the highway paralleled a railroad line. Right opposite the big Air Force Base there, we came to an obvious accident -- an 18-wheeler had hung the bottom of its trailer while crossing the tracks, which lifted the cab's drive wheels off the road. And just as we arrived a 60-car freight train came along from the opposite direction, hitting the trailer broadside. The truck was bent in half and pushed down the track for 150 yards.

No one was hurt -- the driver was across the road at an Air Force guard box, about to call for a wrecker when the train came. Among his cargo was a $98,000 custom Porsche sports car, and another valued at some $50,000. The first was demolished, the other badly damaged.

Once again the weather bureau warned of a pending ice and snow storm on our second day in Warner Robins, this one due the following morning. When we got up, it was overcast, and the clouds were rolling in from the south. So again we threw everything into the car and headed south to warmer climes. It worked again, and we passed through numerous little picturesque Georgia towns. Our route took us close to Camilla, as we turned toward Alabama. A week later the entire town of Camilla was devastated by a tornado.

All in all, we dodged four storms and were involved in two others during our trip to Pensacola. And that's not including the tornado through southwest Georgia. I guess we were lucky. But in our wake were pretty near a hundred smashed cars. Perhaps next winter we will consider flying down.

Feb. 22, 2000

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